15 March 1939
On 15 March 1939, less than six months before the outbreak of the Second World War, German troops occupied the Czech Republic, a parliamentary democracy. It was a military takeover without any credible pretext beyond Hitler’s fanciful claim that the provinces of ‘Bohemia and Moravia (had) for thousands of years belonged to the lebensraum ( ‘living space’ ) of the German people.’1 The Czech government, which had been concerned about the possibility of a sudden invasion, had deposited 23 tons of gold, comprising 1,845 gold bars, with the Basel based Bank of International Settlements (BIS), convinced that it would be beyond the reach of the Nazis. The BIS had been set up in 1930 to act as a central bank for European banks but having no secure vaults to store the Czech gold, the bank transferred the bullion to the Bank of England for safekeeping.2
Hitler’s Third Reich was desperately short of gold reserves, which it needed to finance the importation of vast quantities of raw materials and oil for its ever expanding war machine. Naturally, one of the first actions of the Nazis in Prague was to order the directors of the Czech National Bank at gun point to sign a request to the BIS to transfer the gold to Germany’s Reichsbank. Fortunately for Hitler, Sir Otto Niemeyer, the bank’s chairman, and Montagu Norman, the governor of the Bank of England, were both sympathetic to the Nazi regime. Norman was even a member of the pro-Nazi Anglo-German fellowship.3 The BIS promptly requested the Bank of England to execute the transfer, and Norman willingly obliged, arguing that he was merely fulfilling the Bank of England’s international financial obligations.
The British public was not so easily persuaded and Brendan Bracken, the MP for North Paddington, summed up a feeling of outrage, declaring on 27 May that transferring this Czech gold to ‘Nazi gangsters’ was to ‘sanction the most notorious outrage of this generation, the rape of Czechoslovakia.’4 Despite growing public pressure for answers, the Bank of England failed to disclose that the gold still remained in London and had merely been transferred to the Reichsbank account. Norman was therefore able to continue the bank’s quiet collusion with the Third Reich, facilitating German sales of gold on the international market just five days later on 1 June.5 Three months after that, on 1 September, the proceeds from such sales were finally put to use as the German army invaded Poland, triggering the Second World War.
- Hitler’s proclamation 16 March 1939 cited in Milan Hauner, Hitler: A Chronology of his Life and Time, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York, 2008, p. 242.
- George M. Taber, Chasing Gold: The Incredible Story of How the Nazis Stole Europe’s Bullion, Pegasus, Cambridge, 2014.
- Philip Aldrick, ‘Was Montagu Norman a Nazi Sympathiser ?’ The Daily Telegraph, 31 July 2013 accessed online at url https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/bank-of-england/10214541/Was-Montagu-Norman-a-Nazi-sympathiser.html and Christ Blackhurst, The Nazis’ British Bankers, The Independent, 30 March 1997 accessed at url https://www.independent.co.uk/news/the-nazis-british-bankers-1275885.html
- ‘Czech Gold,’ The Scotsman, 27 May 1939, p. 15.
- Steve Hawkes, ‘Bank of England helped the Nazis to sell plundered gold,’ The Daily Telegraph, 30 July 2013, accessed at url https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/bank-of-england/10212234/Bank-of-England-helped-the-Nazis-to-sell-plundered-gold.html and Ben Quinn, ‘How Bank of England ‘helped Nazis sell gold stolen from Czechs,’ The Guardian, 31 July 2013 accessed online at url https://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/jul/31/bank-of-england-and-nazis-stolen-gold
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